Eleven years ago, Sam Gellman was sure he was going to lose his 14-year-old daughter, Aviva. Within just a week, she was diagnosed with liver disease, and was admitted to American Family Children’s Hospital where she soon became comatose due to the toxins entering her bloodstream. “I was watching her die,” he says. “In fact, by the end, I was sure she was going to go.” The only chance she had was to receive a liver transplant from a living donor — and Sam just happened to be a perfect match. Tony D’Alessandro, MD, pediatric transplant surgeon at UW Health, performed an emergency transplant, and miraculously, Aviva recovered.
Because of her father’s gift of life, Aviva finished high school and college at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. After college, she worked for several years in the Madison area as a legal assistant and as an intern at the Center for Railroad Photography & Art. She is now pursuing her Master of Public Health degree at Boston University School of Public Health. “I’ve always loved going to school and I knew I wanted to go back to school for something,” says Aviva, now 25. “Having a transplant was a big factor in my choice to go into public health. I chose it because the opportunities for a career are so varied.”
Aviva has been fortunate to have no major health problems since her transplant. Because of that, she has felt more comfortable traveling extensively — since her transplant, she has visited 16 different countries, including Croatia and Montenegro. “Immunosuppression can be a little challenging in some areas,” she says, “but I enjoy the challenge of making that work. If I’m traveling in a different country, I’m very careful with what I eat and drink, and what environment I’m sleeping in.”
Of course, the transition from having Aviva close by to having her hundreds of miles away has been challenging for Sam and her mom, Julie Plotkin. “Kids are so central to your existence, and then one day they walk out the door and move somewhere,” says Sam, who is a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But I am grateful I still have her to talk to and give a hug and kiss to whenever I see her.”
While the recovery was his donation took some time, Sam has not experienced any lasting effects at all — other than the scar. In fact, he went on an intense hiking trip with Aviva in Yellowstone National Park last summer. “I worried that I would be able to keep up with her,” he says, “but during the trip, she turned to me and said, ‘Dad, you have more stamina than my friends.’ So I guess I’m still doing OK.”